Crisis situations affect businesses of all sizes and industries every day. The following best practices will help outline and deploy an effective plan to avoid/minimize harm to people, property and reputations. It will even help organizations prepare for, and prevent, the spread of the coronavirus. So far, the misinformation and mismanagement of the pandemic have been negligent on many fronts. Vision is short-sighted and leadership is lacking. Messages are mixed at best, which is compromising public health, public trust, public policies and reputations. What can you do for your organization? Tell the truth and do the right thing.
Being proactive to prevent issues from gaining momentum is the first step of a crisis communications plan. Safeguarding human health is paramount. What keeps you up at night? What could possibly go wrong? What are the critical success factors for your business or organization? What do stakeholders and stockholders expect from your organization? This checklist can help us identify the downside issues within an organization, prioritize them and manage them for maximum impact.
For example, coronavirus is a pathway threat, which means that we must identify and manage potential pathways where the virus can spread to other people. Protecting customers and employees is vital. In fact, negligence could be criminal in a life-threatening event such as this potential pandemic. Stakeholders and the public at large will want to know that you are doing everything possible to prevent new pathways, while containing known source points.
Failing to plan is planning to fail. The only way to make sure you’re fully prepared to deal with crisis situations is to spend the time before an issue arises to put a plan in place. A good crisis communications plan should:
1. Identify the core response team. This group is your first line of defense in crisis situations. At the very least, it should include someone from your PR team and a legal representative. It’s helpful to create an email alias with that group so you can contact everyone at once.
Make sure to designate someone in this group as the directly responsible individual (DRI), as well as an alternate in the event that that person is unable to help. That person will be responsible for evaluating incidents, convening the response team, and looping in other teams as needed.
2. Identify the executive response team. Once the core response team has evaluated an incident and determined its severity, it’s important that they know who on the leadership team should be alerted to the situation. The core group should stay the same from incident to incident, but you should also be prepared to bring in other executives as needed (for example, if it’s a customer-facing issue, make sure your head of customer support is looped in early).
3. Determine your workflow. Outline the specifics of how the team will mobilize during an incident. How will you communicate? How will people in the response teams be notified? How often will you report publicly? Where will you post those communications?
Make sure you consider multiple different scenarios when putting that workflow in place. It’s also helpful to list out all of the constituents that might be impacted, such as customers, employees, partners, or investors. You should also record the different channels you would use to reach these audiences – think in-product notifications, emails, social media posts, or a press release. This work can feel tedious, but it’s incredibly important to have this done well in advance so that you’re not scrambling to compile it later.
Every company is different, so the additional elements of your plans might differ slightly, but these core factors are essential to any effective plan. By outlining these ahead of time, you can be sure you’ll be prepared when a situation actually arises.
In today’s 24/7 news cycle, information can spread globally quickly, and it is more difficult to control the narrative once it’s public. It’s vital to quickly—and thoroughly—evaluate the situation to issue editorial materials and stabilize the issue.
Public statements and/or news releases should be issued as soon as the crisis has been identified and immediately after pertinent information has been verified. If possible, written content and verbal statements should outline potential solutions and next steps. Including this information demonstrates the company’s commitment to a quick resolution and aides message control.
If you catch wind a crisis is looming, consider preemptive efforts, such as initiating contact with relevant reporters or using company social channels to get your story out before news breaks. While that may seem like an unconventional approach, this type of transparency allows the company to control the narrative, so resulting news coverage is more likely to contain accurate, fairly balanced information.
Advanced software platforms that monitor news and social media activity in real-time are essential for keeping a pulse on news coverage as well as public comments and sentiments. The real-time data provides a line of sight during a crisis, so trending headlines and social conversations are immediately identified and important decisions can be made quickly.
The cost for media monitoring and analytics software varies based on the depth of analysis and reporting capabilities of the program. Enterprise systems for large, publicly traded organizations can cost tens of thousands and require a long-term contract.
However, there are also media monitoring systems with free service options for smaller organizations. The gratis systems are useful for examining news mentions and social conversations, but keep in mind that they have limited reporting and analysis capabilities.
With consistent monitoring, you’re able to know what the public is saying and respond in real-time. Remember, one negative mention can quickly go viral. Implementing ongoing monitoring is a smart practice to help mitigate issues before they become crises.
Among the most damaging impacts of a crisis is the loss of public trust and credibility. A crisis might be “handled” in the sense that your company is no longer in the headlines, but the aftereffect can cause long-term damage to a company’s reputation and market share.
Repairing brand reputation requires transparency. If a mistake was made, a mistake was made. This is an opportunity to take ownership, if necessary, and demonstrate a commitment to resolving the issue.
No matter the root cause of the crisis, authenticity in your communication is vital for winning back public trust. Don’t become silent or respond with “no comment.” Instead, create positive conversation and dialogue by sharing relevant information and updates as well as your intended next steps to repair the damage.
Crises are difficult to predict and can stem from a variety of sources – actions of unruly employees, evidence of racial insensitivity or sexual bias, fake news and everything in between. Should a crisis come your way remember, responding to the pressure is better than reacting to it.
Crisis Communication vs. Incident Response
If your company has a physical office, it’s likely that your security team already has an incident response plan in place. Incident response plans are tactical and deal with day-to-day issues that could arise at the office, such as problems with the building or an incident that impacts the physical safety of employees. These plans are often internal-facing and don’t provide any necessary steps for communicating externally other than looping in the PR team if a situation has the potential to go public.
Both crisis communication and incident response plans serve a unique need and are incredibly important for making sure your company is prepared if and when an issue does arise. Today, however, we’ll be focusing on strategies and best practices that are useful for developing a crisis communications plan.
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